The Land of Asylum

This idea that Israel should offer asylum to non-Jewish refugees – how new is that? Some crazy concept thought up by secular Tel Aviv liberals with no concern for Israel’s Jewish character?

Actually, no. Just a bit older than that.

After my post a few days ago on the need for a new policy on African refugees reaching Israel, I got an email from my son, who’s now studying at Ma’aleh Gilboa, the yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. He sent me a text from Sefer Hahinukh, an anonymous 13th century religious text popular in Orthodox study. The book lists the commandments given in each weekly Torah portion, explains how each one is interpreted in Talmudic tradition, and then provides an ethical-spiritual understanding of the commandment.

Below is the Hebrew text he sent me, explaining Commandment No. 565: “Not to return a slave who escaped to the Land of Israel from his master outside the Land of Israel.” The basis of the law is the line in the Torah: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you…” (Deut. 23:16). As Sefer Hahinukh explains:

…even if his master is a Jew, we do not return him to him, but rather free him…
And it is explained in Tractate Gittin (p. 45b) that the verse refers to a slave who escaped from outside the Land of Israel to the Land of Israel….
The root of the commandment is… that God wanted for the sake of the Land’s honor that one fleeing there should be saved from slavery…

I’d suggest that in Jewish thinking, the Land of Israel represents the place where there should be a Jewish polity – even if for most of history that wasn’t the case. That polity is supposed to offer refuge to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who faces enslavement if sent back to where he or she came from. Or perhaps, simply, as Sefer Hahinukh puts it, God wanted to honor this land as the place of freedom.

I won’t claim slavery is history – as the Israeli Task Force on Human Trafficking states:

Israel is a destination country for human trafficking. Women and children are brought into the country every year to be exploited as modern day slaves.

That said, it’s a mistake to be narrowly literalist about the demand of a commandment. An obligation meant to challenge society when written should not be kept as a fossil; it should challenge us today. If someone fleeing slavery deserves asylum, the same applies to someone fleeing death or imprisonment or torture in Sudan or Eritrea. If Israel can’t grant refuge to all those fleeing – and practically, it can’t – it should take an active role in creating international agreement on refuge. In doing so, it would aspire to be a Jewish state.

Sefer Hahinukh on asylum